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The New ‘Shanghaied’ (and it isn’t all that bad)

By Jake Reed

China was never at the top of the list of places to see in Asia that I made three months before getting on a plane to South Korea.  The land of the morning calm was the first stage in an epic bender that would define my mid- and late twenties.  After six years of highs and lows, lefts and rights, yins and yangs, I can say life is good in China.

A superficial reading of this can leave you thinking this is China bashing via the experiences of another ungrateful foreigner living abroad.  I like it here, there’s a sincerity about the people I’ve met. Then there’s the work ethic. And by that I mean a “doing something” ethic.  Lethargy just isn’t “in” here nor is it something people aspire to do (you know the work all day and sit on my butt when I am off mentality). It’s not how clever you are but how hard you work. Two jobs are not uncommon and studying isn’t something you stop doing after a graduation. While some people work to live (a popular motivator to make enough money to enjoy life) they seem to “live to work.” Their job is a form of identity and the social relationships developed with coworkers are much deeper on a day to day basis when compared to their contemporaries in my neck of the woods. For example, you can find “Buddy” on the grill barbequing away on any given night after 10 P.M. Next to him with a cooking apparatus of her own, is a woman who compliments his meat wagon with noodles drenched in oil and then stir fried. During the day they can be found manning their respective shops and bantering with their regulars, or attempting to hawk a fresh face out of their RMB. Yeah, it’s safe to say they like doing stuff.

Beyond that, I am enjoying more fiscal freedom than I would be able to from my country of origin (the U.S.).  This is not something I take lightly.  Culturally, the Chinese are formidable and now, they are on the verge of showing it economically.  Consequently, I have found myself in a city that is increasingly becoming more and more metropolitan in a country that is often at the negative end of the media propaganda war.  So, in the spirit of Britain taking shots at Germany as they were set to take the number one spot on the world stage at the turn of the 20th century, here we find a very similar atmosphere.  Yeah, Shanghai has a dark side and falls short of being paradise but then again, utopias are for people who keep their heads in the clouds (or sand). My current paradise is a polluted, crowded yet charming city.  Charming–like that old dirty uncle you have who comes to the dinner table in a stained t-shirt, brings on the flatulence followed by a few personal narratives, and all of sudden, everyone’s smiling and laughing together.

Six years after first moving to Asia and I find myself becoming lazy.  Lazy in my desire to care about China’s track record with respect to abusing human rights, purposely manipulating its currency and just about everything Fox News blames China for.  The laziness comes out in my compliance at being on the outside looking in. Getting stared at, being cut in line, and putting up with jeering from way too serious local coworkers have become part of my 9-5.  I’ve become indifferent to the expensive foreigner markets, the special foreigner price at most restaurants and the local girls ephemeral charms that hide evil intent.  Despite all this and heaps more, I still choose People’s Square as the place where I close my eyes and open them to the ever-present Shanghai grey.

Take a walk anywhere and eventually you’ll run into landscapes where run-down buildings meet novel, haste-induced architecture.  Building materials decorate half-finished constructions.  A Chinese friend once laughingly told me that the haste and lack of quality in the construction biz is done in order to insure future jobs.  I’m quite close to believing him.  You have to keep the country boys busy lest they begin plotting or getting sick of their present material conditions.  Migrant workers sleep on the ground at high-noon without a hint of shame as faceless pedestrians rush past inches from their makeshift beds.  The closest way to explain this is to just use the word caste.  These country boys come from other provinces and make up a decent part of blue-collar China. This is done as grey skies illuminate pedestrian hordes emulating protons in some mad science experiment, bouncing off one piece of solid matter to go on and invade the personal space of another. This is the place I call home and is just as easily interchanged with my actual hometown.  Time and space have made it necessary for my comfort zone to expand (Seoul provided a fine orientation).  Accepting that such gods are fickle helps one embrace the theme of change on both a micro and macro level.

See, China has a lot of people—all you people outside of China have to do is turn on the news to find this out.  However, one can venture out under the illumination of moonlight anytime to experience the circus of humanity that is Shanghai.  Chinese BBQ fills the air as smoke carries spice with a little encouragement from a human-powered fan, the clouds slapping the senses.  Be brave but mind the seafood.  Usually, an ocean rot stank overpowers the spiced breeze when venturing too close to a corrupted saltwater specimen.  The Chinese, as far as I can tell, seem to have stomachs that neutralize just about anything be it slimy seafood or the Chinese “hot pot” which could take the chrome off a bumper.  People watching and random encounters get me around such smells in the first place. Sometimes I just walk and take random turns until I don’t know where I am.  You find new holes in the wall (be it a bar, a clothing store, a shady pharmacy), new direct marketing representatives or a set up for the chance to cross paths with a stranger who doesn’t stay one.  I tried such in Seoul and found it was a great way to step in fresh kimchi vomit, cross paths with a bored ajeoshi or find myself in the uniform vertical horizon of 10-plus story buildings.  Yeah, it’s fun to get lost in Shanghai.

I often find myself in view of that tower.  This is that same tower you may associate China with as it tends to be shown off on clothing, airwaves and Hollywood.  I wish I had something in mind to make it sound majestic or poem worthy and set you off for future memories of bliss with a few words that inspire pleasant imagery.  I don’t. It looks like crossroads where modernity and the dark side of Freudian analysis meet and kill each other on sight.  It seems to loom, always on the horizon, on any street you walk or it’s just waiting around the corner like the leather-jacket clad “plain clothes” police.  Then again, who said symbols of nationalism had to meet aesthetic standards?

There are also some communication issues to be had.  I thought studying Mandarin was enough.  You know, enough to speak like a child, to get through the language barrier and minimize those “lost in translation” moments and crudely interact in a non-threatening manner.  Imagine the disappointment of attempting to BS with a bag lady who was only capable of conversing in Shanghainese.   Yes, that’s nese plus Shanghai and it’s apparently a language different enough to baffle those who spent hours learning to crudely invoke the Chinese common speak.  Good luck speaking Mandarin with the locals.  See, they mainly prefer city dialect and some can’t be bothered to speak anything else.  Never mind the vast oblivion of China, Shanghai is vast enough to roost amidst the safety of its own linguistic borders.  This is Shanghai first and China second.

One can’t help but draw up parallels to Roman Italy and Ancient Greece.  There wasn’t a nation but a group of city states where those who were lucky enough to be citizens, got to walk around and brag about it.  Everyone else in these places was a slave of sorts with limited rights and was not able to vote.  Feel free to draw on as many parallels between the ancient city-states and the ones around now.  Hong Kong and Shanghai are truly left to their own devices—especially with respect to education.  Results don’t lie and Shanghai can be found consistently amongst the best. Aww, more parallels to draw in this historical worm hole as the past feels a hell of a lot like my personal now.  So, it’s Shanghai before China, right?

Beyond the city states, there is a city and a state that may resemble Shanghai.  York must have been one hell of a city before it became new.  You know, where novelty meets the established Anglo Saxon culture—but I digress.

We’ve all heard of the New York minute.  The Shanghai hour is the rush time eternity spent crammed with people in a subway.  Yes, they just keep piling in…  Unhappily crushed people are rarely a deterrent and people will throw themselves into a mass of flesh in hopes of joining it.  Peasants with their belongings scattered about, old people leaning on you without a care in the world.  Red-faced karaoke veterans still reeking of wine and cigarette smoke enjoy their fleeting buzz as they make their way home to their real life as a husband and father while offering serious stares.  The metro is also the natural environment for professional thieves.  Scammers searching for trusting foreigners prowl these trains waiting for that perfect moment to try their luck in your back pocket. An iPhone is a few months rent you know.  A group of artistic thieves recently plagued the metro utilizing chopsticks.  Given the awkward movements that make up most Lawais (foreigners) eating adventures, the fact that people were successfully robbing peoples pockets with them encourages any to willingly traverse the grey area of morality to appreciate the adept utensil inspired thievery.

Epic poems have been written about worse. My lungs may never be the same but it’s more than worth it to spend my waning youth in the heart of a modern Chinese city-state.

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jakeJake Reed has been exploring the extremities of the human condition for the last five years and he currently teaches in China.

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